It’s a ritual that happens in almost every family. I’m talking about the first day of school, especially the first day of Kindergarten or its equivalent. It’s a big event, even for children who’ve been in a child care facility of some kind. It’s an even bigger event for those who haven’t. And it often makes people anxious.
For the parents, it might be the first time their child is ‘officially’ compared to others. And in some countries, it’s the first time that children are expected to do anything like academic work. So, it’s natural for parents to feel anxious (e.g. ‘Will my child make friends/learn letters/behave/etc….’). For the children, starting school means a whole new routine, new adults in charge, and all sorts of new children to meet. And that’s to say nothing of what they’re expected to learn. Some children are excited about it, and some are reluctant, to say the least.
Not the least of parents’ concerns is, of course, their child’s well-being. That’s one reason many parents walk or drive their young children to school (at least until those children beg them not to any more…). We see that sort of concern in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. In that novel, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband, Hendrik, seem to have a perfect suburban life, complete with white picket fence. They’ve been married for fifteen years, and they are the proud parents of six-year-old Axel. Then, Eva discovers that Hendrik has been unfaithful. Devastated by this news, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she makes her own plans, which quickly spiral out of control. In the meantime, she’s got another concern. One day, Axel tells her about a man – someone he doesn’t know – who’s been talking to him over the fence at his school. It scares Eva, as you can imagine, and adds to the tension in the story. And, in its own way, it relates to the larger plot.
Hannah Dennison’s Deadly Desires at Honeychurch Hall features former TV personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford, who’s living with her mother, Iris, in the former carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall, in Devon. The estate’s current owner is Rupert Honeychurch, whose son, Harry, is old enough now to go to school. Like many boys in his social group, Harry is sent away to school, and he doesn’t like the idea at all. He’s miserable away from home and keeps finding excuses to come back to Honeychurch Hall. His unhappiness sparks a major debate in his family. On the one hand, if Harry doesn’t go away to one of the ‘right schools,’ there’s a good chance he won’t get to mix with boys of his social class. This means he won’t get the opportunity to be a part of the networks that are so important to later advancement. On the other hand, there’s no doubt he’s deeply unhappy, and would much prefer to go to the local school. It’s not an easy choice to make, especially for a boy as young as Harry is. Admittedly, it’s not a part of the main plot thread. But it shows what it can be like for families as their children go off to school.
In Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis. There’s been a murder there that resembles a murder MacLeod is investigating, and it’s hoped that, if the same person committed both murders, working as a team might help both groups catch the killer. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the Isle of Lewis. But it’s not a particularly joyful one. He had his own good reasons for leaving when he did. And the dead man is a person he used to know. As MacLeod works with the local team to find out who the killer is, he meets several people he grew up with, and we learn about his early life. One of his memories is going to school for the first time (he was excited about it at first). One of the realities of life at the time MacLeod was growing up was the fact that most people on the Isle of Lewis spoke Gaelic. And yet, only English was spoken and taught in school. So, along with getting used to lessons and so on, MacLeod also had to get used to a new language. And that’s a reality for many young children who speak one language at home and/or in their community but must learn another at school.
Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly in an ultra-exclusive community called Cascade Heights Country Club, about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are not guaranteed acceptance. It’s a very elite place. Residents are expected to shop at certain places, go on certain trips, and send their children only to the ‘right’ schools. Then, the financial crises of the late 1990s (when this novel takes place) find their way into even this most upmarket of places. Everything starts to change, and eventually, it ends in real tragedy. At one point, there’s an interesting discussion of one of the residents, Mariana, getting her daughter ready to go to school for the first time. This school teaches in English, so the child will have to get used to a new school, new children, and a completely new language. But this is one of the ‘right’ schools, and Mariana’s main concern is getting her daughter into the school and then making sure she stays there. Instead of being concerned about her daughter’s readiness, comfort, etc., or easing her anxieties, Mariana is thinking about her daughter’s appearance, and about her superficial success. Certainly, she’s doing nothing to ease the transition to school.
And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. This novel takes place within the community of parents and children associated with Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main focus is on the Kindergarten class, and the children who are joining it. The plot follows the lives of three families whose children are enrolled in that class, and how those lives intersect. There are rivalries, domestic issues, and other simmering conflicts that boil over one evening and end in tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see the anxiety of starting school for both parents and children. The parents want their children to reflect well on them, of course. The children have their own anxieties, and it’s interesting to see how that tension impacts the story.
Starting school, especially for the first time, can be stressful. It’s almost always eventful, and it can lead to all sorts of anxiety. Little wonder we see this plot point in the genre.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.